When do we need to answer questions?

If someone has a doubt, you might not want to give them an answer.

And there are a lot of people with doubts about Christianity. Gallup reports that “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.” The New Republic reports:

Denison University political scientist Paul A. Djupe, who has studied the impact of politics on religious affiliation, estimates that just over 20 percent of American evangelicals, or eight million people, left the church between 2016 and 2020. 

As a Christian, I’ve often felt a responsibility to respectfully and empathetically engage with image bearers who have doubts about Christianity. 

Why? Well, in 1 Peter 3:15 we read:

… in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…

Always and anyone. Do you feel the pressure? As an aside, I’ll say that it seems unlikely to me that Peter meant to obligate all Christians to always be ready to engage with all of the specific objections from all of the people they might meet. Just writing that sentence makes me feel exhausted. 

In any case, as I pray about the growing skepticism in America, and my own rootedness in the apologetics tradition of U.S. evangelicalism, Abraham Maslow’s famous saying comes to mind: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Got a hammer? You see nails.

Got apologetics? You see people who need an argument.

But the thing is, more people are disaffiliating because of traumatic experiences. As Blake Chastain, who started the #exvangelical hashtag, says, “One of the most common things among everyone [exvangelicals] is they’ve experienced some sort of trauma.”

For instance, the most recent scandal is Josh Duggar’s possession of child sexual assault material. Similarly, David and Nancy French have written an important exposé on Kanakuk. More personally, I’ve been working through grief as I’ve tried to process Ravi Zacharias’s abuses. And I’ve grieved how RZIM mistreated the survivors — and the employees who advocated for these women

Scandal after scandal after scandal. These stories are the headline news, but there are thousands of individual testimonials about controlling pastors, religious manipulation, and betrayed trust. That’s what’s really behind the growing exodus.

We need to pay careful attention to this growing reason for disbelief because it makes a tremendous difference in how we engage with those who have left the church — or with those image bearers who have never been inside a church, but are understandably suspicious of us. 

For instance, if we are asked a form of the question, “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” we might be reminded of our apologetics training, or our evangelism templates, and then provide excellent, thoughtful, Scriptural answers. I trust that we would each have a gentle and respectful manner.

But what I am suggesting is that the person may not be asking a theological question. 

Rather, they might be testing whether or not we are a safe person who cares about their traumatic experiences.

One definition of “evil” is the absence of good. If that is the case, then one important response to evil is the presence of good. That is, your presence. And not, at that stage of the conversation, your apologetics. Otherwise we could come across as Job’s miserable comforters — people with an ego-driven agenda — rather than a good neighbor who generously meets the needs of the abused.

Diane Langberg writes:

Often when we enter into another’s suffering we try to drag them into our world. We want them to think what we think, choose what we would choose, understand what we see, and live more like we do. We want them to leave their depression, sorrow, or grief behind and “get over it.”

You can only help people by entering into their darkness. You cannot talk people out of suffering, trauma, addiction or great grief. You must go to them, sit with them, listen and understand; then little by little you can begin to walk with them toward a new and different place.

When someone shares their hurt and pain with us, will they find that they are in the presence of a good person? 

Second, the #exvangelical trend also means we need to evaluate the culture of our churches and institutions. We may have assumed that our churches are good, safe, and healing places. How awful that RZIM is facing a crisis. Thank God we don’t have any problems like that! But… how do we know?

  • What specifically is it about our church’s culture that makes it a safe environment?
  • When did we last train our congregation to identify toxic behaviors and respond to them in a godly manner? 
  • How do we know that our systems and culture would respond well to a claim that one of our leaders was abusive?
  • Even if everything is healthy right now, how do others know that we can be trusted to prevent abuse?

There might have been an implicit assumption of trust in earlier decades, but that’s quickly eroding. As unfair as it might feel, we are increasingly in a position where we need to demonstrate and earn that trust again. 

Third, one indication of a healthy church is that it is aware of and discusses problems. Would you trust a pastor who never mentioned how God’s word diagnoses what is wrong in us and our culture? Who never explained how God’s ways are different? Who never showed how God provides the capacity to live good and holy lives? 

If you expect this of your pastors, then it makes sense that you would want them to be increasingly prepared to talk about religious abuse — and how your church will be a good, caring, and safe environment. 

I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments (available to subscribers at substack):

  1. What do you sense are the main reasons people are currently leaving the church?
  2. Are these reasons different from five or ten years ago? 
  3. How do we need to change our approach?

The header photo is by Harli Marten on Unsplash